Rambles and recollections of an Indian official!
Major-General Sir W. H. Sleeman, K.C.B.
The Bēgam Sumroo

On the 7th of February [1836] I went out to Sardhana and visited the church built and endowed by the late Bēgam Sombre, whose remains are now deposited in it.[1] It was designed by an Italian gentleman, M. Reglioni, and is a fine but not a striking building.[2]


I met the bishop, Julius Caesar, an Italian from Milan, whom I had known a quarter of a century before, a happy and handsome young man—he is still handsome, though old; but very miserable because the Bēgam did not leave him so large a legacy as he expected.


In the revenues of her church he had, she thought, quite enough to live upon; and she said that priests without wives or children to care about ought to be satisfied with this; and left him only a few thousand rupees.


She made him the medium of conveying a donation to the See of Rome of one hundred and fifty thousand rupees,[3] and thereby procured for him the bishopric of Amartanta in the island of Cyprus; and got her grandson, Dyce Sombre, made a chevalier of the Order of Christ, and presented with a splint from the real cross, as a relic.


The Bēgam Sombre was by birth a Saiyadanī, or lineal descendant from Muhammad, the founder of the Musalmān faith; and she was united to Walter Reinhard, when very young, by all the forms considered necessary by persons of her persuasion when married to men of another.[4]


Reinhard had been married to another woman of the Musalmān faith, who still lives at Sardhana,[5] but she had become insane, and has ever since remained so. By this first wife he had a son, who got from the Emperor the title of Zafar Yāb Khān, at the request of the Bēgam, his stepmother; but he was a man of weak intellect, and so little thought of that he was not recognized even as the nominal chief on the death of his father.


Walter Reinhard was a native of Salzburg. He enlisted as a private soldier in the French service, and came to India, where he entered the service of the East India Company, and rose to the rank of sergeant.[6] Reinhard got the sobriquet of Sombre from his comrades while in the French service from the sombre cast of his countenance and temper.[7]


An Armenian, by name Gregory, of a Calcutta family, the virtual minister of Kāsim Alī Khān,[8] under the title of Gorgīn Khān,[9] took him into his service when the war was about to commence between his master and the English.


Kāsim Alī was a native of Kāshmīr, and not naturally a bad man; but he was goaded to madness by the injuries and insults heaped upon him by the servants of the East India Company, who were not then paid, as at present, in adequate salaries, but in profits upon all kinds of monopolies; and they would not suffer the recognized sovereign of the country in which they traded to grant to his subjects the same exemption that they claimed for themselves exclusively; and a war was the consequence.[10]


Mr. Ellis, one of these civil servants and chief of the factory at Patna, whose opinions had more weight with the council in Calcutta than all the wisdom of such men as Vansittart and Warren Hastings, because they happened to be more consonant with the personal interests of the majority, precipitately brought on the war, and assumed the direction of all military operations, of which he knew nothing, and for which he seems to have been totally unfitted by the violence of his temper.


All his enterprises failed—the city and factory were captured by the enemy, and the European inhabitants taken prisoners. The Nawāb, smarting under the reiterated wrongs he had received, and which he attributed mainly to the counsels of Mr. Ellis, no sooner found the chief within his grasp, than he determined to have him and all who were taken with him, save a Doctor Fullarton, to whom he owed some personal obligations, put to death.


His own native officers were shocked at the proposal, and tried to dissuade him from the purpose, but he was resolved, and not finding among them any willing to carry it into execution he applied to Sumroo, who readily undertook and, with some of his myrmidons, performed the horrible duty in 1763.[11]


At the suggestion of Gregory and Sombre, Kāsim Alī now attempted to take the small principality of Nepāl, as a kind of basis for his operations against the English. He had four hundred excellent rifles with flint locks and screwed barrels made at Monghyr (Mungēr) on the Ganges, so as to fit into small boxes. These boxes were sent up on the backs of four hundred brave volunteers for this forlorn hope. Gregory had got a passport for the boxes as rare merchandise for the palace of the prince at Kathmandū, in whose presence alone they were to be opened.


On reaching the palace at night, these volunteers were to open their boxes, screw up the barrels, destroy all the inmates, and possess themselves of the palace, where it is supposed Kāsim Ali had already secured many friends. Twelve thousand soldiers had advanced to the foot of the hills near Betiyā, to support the attack, and the volunteers were in the fort of Makwānpur, the only strong fort between the plain and the capital.


They had been treated with great consideration by the garrison, and were to set out at daylight the next morning; but one of the attendants, who had been let into the secret, got drunk, and in a quarrel with one of the garrison, told him that he should see in a few days who would be master of that garrison.


This led to suspicion; the boxes were broken open, the arms discovered, and the whole of the party, except three or four, were instantly put to death; the three or four who escaped gave intelligence to the army at Betiyā, and the whole retreated upon Monghyr. But for this drunken man, Nepāl had perhaps been Kāsim Alī's.[12]


Kāsim Alī Khān was beaten in several actions by our gallant little band of troops under their able leader, Colonel Adams; and at last driven to seek shelter with the Nawāb Wazīr of Oudh, into whose service Sumroo afterwards entered. This chief being in his turn beaten, Sumroo went off and entered the service of the celebrated chief of Rohilkhand, Hāfiz Rahmat Khān. This he soon quitted from fear of the English.


He raised two battalions in 1772, which he soon afterwards increased to four; and let out always to the highest bidder—first, to the Jāt chiefs of Dīg, then to the chief of Jaipur, then to Najaf Khān, the prime minister, and then to the Marāthās. His battalions were officered by Europeans, but Europeans of respectability were unwilling to take service under a man so precariously situated, however great their necessities; and he was obliged to content himself for the most part with the very dross of society—men who could neither read nor write, nor keep themselves sober.


The consequence was that the battalions were often in a state of mutiny, committing every kind of outrage upon the persons of their officers, and at all times in a state of insubordination bordering on mutiny. These battalions seldom obtained their pay till they put their commandant into confinement, and made him dig up his hidden stores, if he had any, or borrow from bankers, if he had none. If the troops felt pressed for time, and their commander was of the necessary character, they put him astride upon a hot gun without his trousers.


When our battalion had got its pay out of him in this manner, he was often handed over to another for the same purpose. The poor old Bēgam had been often subjected to the starving stage of this proceeding before she came under our protection; but had never, I believe, been grilled upon a gun. It was a rule, it was said, with Sombre, to enter the field of battle at the safest point, form line facing the enemy, fire a few rounds in the direction where they stood, without regard to the distance or effect, form square, and await the course of events.


If victory declared for the enemy, he sold his unbroken force to him to great advantage; if for his friends, he assisted them in collecting the plunder, and securing all the advantages of the victory. To this prudent plan of action his corps afterwards steadily adhered; and they never took or lost a gun till they came in contact with our forces at Ajantā and Assaye.[13]


Sombre died at Agra on the 4th of May, 1778, and his remains were at first buried in his garden. They were afterwards removed to the consecrated ground in the Agra churchyard by his widow the Bēgam,[14] who was baptized, at the age of forty,[15] by a Roman Catholic priest, under the name of Joanna,[16] on the 7th of May, 1781.


On the death of her husband she was requested to take command of the force by all the Europeans and natives that composed it, as the only possible mode of keeping them together, since the son was known to be altogether unfit. She consented, and was regularly installed in the charge by the Emperor Shāh Alam. Her chief officer was a Mr. Paoli, a German, who soon after took an active part in providing the poor imbecile old Emperor with a prime minister, and got himself assassinated on the restoration, a few weeks after, of his rival.[17] The troops continued in the same state of insubordination, and the Bēgam was anxious for an opportunity to show that she was determined to be obeyed.


While she was encamped with the army of the prime minister of the time at Mathurā,[18] news was one day brought to her that two slave girls had set fire to her houses at Agra, in order that they might make off with their paramours, two soldiers of the guard she had left in charge. These houses had thatched roofs, and contained all her valuables, and the widows, wives, and children of her principal officers.


The fire had been put out with much difficulty and great loss of property; and the two slave girls were soon after discovered in the bazaar at Agra, and brought out to the Bēgam's camp. She had the affair investigated in the usual summary form; and their guilt being proved to the satisfaction of all present, she had them flogged till they were senseless, and then thrown into a pit dug in front of her tent for the purpose, and buried alive. I had heard the story related in different ways, and I now took pains to ascertain the truth; and this short narrative may, I believe, be relied upon.[19]


An old Persian merchant, called the Agā, still resided at Sardhana, to whom I knew that one of the slave girls belonged. I visited him, and he told me that his father had been on intimate terms with Sombre, and when he died his mother went to live with his widow, the Bēgam—that his slave girl was one of the two- that his mother at first protested against her being taken off to the camp, but became on inquiry satisfied of her guilt—and that the Bēgam's object was to make a strong impression upon the turbulent spirit of her troops by a severe example.


'In this object', said the old Agā, 'she entirely succeeded; and for some years after her orders were implicitly obeyed; had she faltered on that occasion she must have lost the command—she would have lost that respect, without which it would have been impossible for her to retain it a month. I was then a boy; but I remember well that there were, besides my mother and sisters, many respectable females that would have rather perished in the flames than come out to expose themselves to the crowd that assembled to see the fires; and had the fires not been put out, a great many lives must have been lost; besides, there were many old people and young children who could not have escaped.'


The old Agā was going off to take up his quarters at Delhi when this conversation took place; and I am sure that he told me what he thought to be true. This narrative corresponded exactly with that of several other old men from whom I had heard the story.


It should be recollected that among natives there is no particular mode of execution prescribed for those who are condemned to die; nor, in a camp like this, any court of justice save that of the commander in which they could be tried, and, supposing the guilt to have been established, as it is said to have been to the satisfaction of the Bēgam and the principal officers, who were all Europeans and Christians, perhaps the punishment was not much greater than the crime deserved and the occasion demanded.


But it is possible that the slave girls may not have set fire to the buildings, but merely availed themselves of the occasion of the fire to run off; indeed, slave girls are under so little restraint in India, that it would be hardly worth while for them to burn down a house to get out. I am satisfied that the Bēgam believed them guilty, and that the punishment, horrible as it was, was merited. It certainly had the desired effect. My object has been to ascertain the truth in this case, and to state it, and not to eulogize or defend the old Bēgam.


After Paoli's death, the command of the troops under the Bēgam devolved successively upon Baours, Evans, Dudrenec, who, after a short time, all gave it up in disgust at the beastly habits of the European subalterns, and the overbearing insolence to which they and the want of regular pay gave rise among the soldiers. At last the command devolved upon Monsieur Le Vaisseau, a French gentleman of birth, education, gentlemanly deportment, and honourable feelings.[20]


The battalions had been increased to six, with their due proportion of guns and cavalry; part resided at Sardhana, her capital, and part at Delhi, in attendance upon the Emperor. A very extraordinary man entered her service about the same time with Le Vaisseau, George Thomas, who, from a quartermaster on board a ship, raised himself to a principality in Northern India.[21]


Thomas on one occasion raised his mistress in the esteem of the Emperor and the people by breaking through the old rule of central squares: gallantly leading on his troops, and rescuing his majesty from a perilous situation in one of his battles with a rebellious subject, Najaf Kulī Khān, where the Bēgam was present in her palankeen, and reaped all the laurels, being from that day called 'the most beloved daughter of the Emperor'.[22]


As his best chance of securing his ascendancy against such a rival, Le Vaisseau proposed marriage to the Bēgam, and was accepted. She was married to Le Vaisseau by Father Gregoris, a Carmelite monk, in 1793, before Saleur and Bernier, two French officers of great merit. George Thomas left her service, in consequence, in 1793, and set up for himself; and was afterwards crushed by the united armies of the Sikhs and Marāthās, commanded by European officers, after he had been recognized as a general officer by the Governor-General of India.


George Thomas had latterly twelve small disciplined battalions officered by Europeans. He had good artillery, cast his own guns, and was the first person that applied iron calibres to brass cannon. He was unquestionably a man of very extraordinary military genius, and his ferocity and recklessness as to the means he used were quite in keeping with the times.